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Module 2: Recognition of Asbestos and Asbestos-Containing Materials (ACMs)
Module 3: Legal and Regulatory Framework
Module 4: Safe Work Practices & Control Measures
Module 5: Decontamination & Disposal
Module 6: Case Studies & Best Practices

1B. History of Asbestos Use

The history of asbestos use is a tale of industrial demand driven by the material’s desirable properties, shadowed by the eventual recognition of its severe health hazards. This section delves into the global and Australian context, with a specific look at Victoria’s experience.

Global Perspective

  • Industrial Revolution to the 1970s: Asbestos became a cornerstone of industrialisation from the late 19th century, prized for its fire resistance, insulation properties, and tensile strength. It was used in construction materials, automotive parts, shipbuilding, and even household products.
  • Peak and Decline: The peak of global asbestos use was in the mid-20th century, with millions of tons produced annually. By the 1970s, growing evidence of its health risks led to public outcry, regulatory scrutiny, and a gradual decline in use.

Asbestos in Australia

  • Widespread Adoption: Australia was one of the highest per capita users of asbestos in the world until the 1980s. Its use spanned across construction, manufacturing, and even in the fabric of everyday life, with homes, offices, and schools built using asbestos-containing materials (ACMs).
  • Victorian Context: In Victoria, like the rest of Australia, asbestos was a common sight in buildings and infrastructure. The state’s industrial and construction sectors heavily relied on asbestos for its fireproofing and insulation properties.

The Turning Point

  • Emerging Health Concerns: The late 20th century saw a significant shift in perception as the link between asbestos and severe health conditions, such as mesothelioma and asbestosis, became undeniable. Workers and communities affected by asbestos exposure began to voice their concerns, leading to increased scientific research and media attention.
  • Legislation and Bans: The mounting evidence against asbestos safety led to regulatory actions worldwide. Australia banned crocidolite (blue asbestos) in 1967, amosite (brown asbestos) in 1984, and a total ban on chrysotile (white asbestos) was finally implemented in 2003. Victoria, adhering to national guidelines, phased out the use of asbestos and implemented strict controls on the management and removal of existing ACMs.

Legacy and Ongoing Challenges

  • Despite the bans, the legacy of asbestos use persists, with many buildings and infrastructure still containing ACMs. The challenge remains to manage and safely remove these materials while preventing exposure to workers and the public.

Conclusion

The history of asbestos use is a sobering reminder of the balance between technological advancement and public health. As we continue to deal with the legacy of asbestos, the lessons learned from its history are invaluable in guiding future materials safety and public health policies.